Archive for the ‘Organizing’Category

5 Tips for Family Preparedness, Twins and Spouse Edition

So, if you don’t know my background, I’m 42, and my wife is 38.  We’ve been married 7 years.  We had assumed that children weren’t part of our future, as my wife has endometriosis, and she has tried all her life for kids (she had a 1st husband).  We had talked about adoption, and perhaps being foster parents, but nothing really felt right.  So we ran our business, loved on our dogs, and planned toward some land and a quiet retirement.

The Good Lord had other plans, and we were blessed with twins back in January.  For many people, this would have been a disaster.  My wife was without insurance. (She was uninsurable under the old system, and we couldn’t get her signed up on the ridiculous government healthcare site due to the technical issues.  When we finally did, it was too late to cover the birth, and would only take effect the following month.  Yep, ridiculous)  And while the business is doing OK, the massive increase in the number of survival stores in the past 2 years, plus some problems with an unethical competitor last year left us pretty damaged.  All in all, not what you hope life is going like when you hear ‘hey, its twins!’.

Wait, we had 3?

Wait, we had 3?

Still, the main benefit of preparedness is that what might be a catastrophe for one family is only an inconvenience for another.  Having twins brought into focus many of the things we have done right over the past number of years, plus some of the things we still need to work on.  Here are a couple things we did right that let us weather the storm without going bankrupt, as well as a couple more that provide me peace of mind every day.

1)  Save, save, and save some more:  I am pretty fanatical about saving.  And to be truly prepared, you have to be too.  In 2000, when I was flat broke and several thousand dollars in debt, I still saved.  So to those who don’t save, don’t tell me its because you can’t.  Every paycheck back then I took $5 and put it in an envelope; when saving is the FIRST thing you do, not the last, you can make it happen.  When I worked overtime or got a raise, I put away $5 more.  If I got a birthday card from Mom, half that money went in the envelope.  I remember the day, standing in a crappy 1 BR apartment, when I looked and I had $500 in the envelope.  I hadn’t seen $500 in a VERY long time.  (And only a couple times total up to that point in my life)

No matter what, I NEVER stopped saving, whether it was just a dollar or whether it was $50.  By developing a savings mindset, you learn self-control with your money.  So yes, it hurt like hell when we got hospital bills every day for a month for the delivery of our babies.  And yes, writing thousand dollar checks more than a few times sucked.  However, because we always put money aside, we were able to cover our bills without going into debt, and without relying on family or the government.

2)  Save more part 2:  NEVER BUY A NEW CAR:  Everyone hears this advice, and so many still don’t take it.  I don’t care what your reasoning is (unless you are independently wealthy and buying a new car doesn’t register on the checkbook), I’ve heard all the excuses.  ‘I have to have a reliable car…’ or ‘It’s for the kids…’  Guess what?  Everyone needs a safe, reliable car for themselves and their kids if they have them.  That still doesn’t mean you need a new car.  Back when I was at Dollar General, I desperately wanted a Toyota FJ Cruiser.  With my income at that time, any car dealer would have gladly sold me a new one.  A used one a couple of years old was going for $17k, something any bank would give me a personal car loan for.  My self-given budget before I started car shopping was $10k.  I bet you all know someone who would have bought the FJ Cruiser in my spot.

What did my wife and I do?  We searched cars.com, Craigslist, eBay and 5 other auto websites for 6 months until we found a perfect, clean, shiny 2005 Jeep Jiberty for $10,000 (this was 2007).  It was such a good deal the owner told me to walk away if I wanted to offer less.  And considering I sold my ‘old’ car, a cool little Toyota MR2 for $6300 (also paid for in cash from the money I saved by quitting smoking in 2003), I was only out of pocket around $4k.  Instead of giving in to the desire for the ‘new shiny’, we stuck to our budget and instead got the best deal we could for what we allocated toward a new vehicle.

Do you know what I drive today, even though we’re in much better financial shape than even back in 2007?  A 2005 Jeep Liberty we paid cash for in 2007.  It’s been incredibly dependable and such a huge blessing to our finances.

In 2010, my wife wanted something bigger to help with her eBay business.  Again, we could have afforded (according to conventional thinking of the average car salesman) a new or newish Tahoe or the like.  After a month of shopping, my wife found a 1999 Chevy Suburban with 121,000 miles.  We wrote a check for $6950.  What is my wife driving today?  A 1999 Chevy Suburban.  I imagine we’ve saved $30,000-$40,000 since we met over what the average family spends on vehicles.  Please take my advice on this if you are tight on your finances; vehicles tend to be the #1 budget buster for most families.

3)  A food storage program can cut many food costs in half:  We’re not big couponers, though my wife and I have talked about getting into it.  However, we still do what we can to save on groceries, and our food storage lets us do that pretty easily.  The financial benefits of food storage is what really convinced my wife to let us start prepping more heavily.  How so?  Our food storage system means that we store about 90 days worth of all the groceries we regularly eat in our basement.  The result is we generally don’t ever have to pay full price for any of our groceries.  When our peanut butter comes up Buy-one-get-one at Publix, we don’t just buy 2 jars…we buy 10-20.  So we get a years worth of peanut butter for half the cost of picking it up one jar at a time when we run out.  Because the majority of our food, from pasta to fish sticks, comes up eventually buy one get one, by having a storage program we essentially cut our grocery costs in half, without trying to finagle the system with coupons (though to those folks who can, more power to you!).  Most of our other items (plus our paper products) we buy at Sam’s, and get a discount by buying in bulk.

4)  Know where your finances are:  For a long time I worried that if I died, my wife would have a hard time figuring out where all our finances were.  We have multiple checking accounts for home and business, IRA’s, a 401(k) from my old job, an HSA for me, and a couple of savings accounts.  In most households, one person handles the finances, generally whoever is most money savvy, whether husband or wife.  For our family, that is me.  But what happens if something happens to us?  It is imperative our spouses or someone responsible knows about our finances as well.

I created a special folder on our computer called ‘For My Wife, If I Die Go here’.  My wife laughed, but is genuinely thankful that the information she needs is readily available if something happens to me.  It contains a spreadsheet of all of our accounts, insurance policies, passwords, and balances (which I try to update every 3 months or so).  It would be a terrible hassle for my wife to try to figure out all this on her own if she were mourning the loss of her husband, if she even knew where to look.  I even put in some advice as to what I recommend she spend the modest amount of life insurance money on (Pay off the house and rental mainly, and save anything left).  This way, I’ve done what I can to protect my family to the best of my ability should something happen to me.

Write down all your financial info somewhere, whether on a spreadsheet or in a notebook.  And then make sure your spouse knows where it is and how to interpret it.

5)  Try Out The Auction Lifestyle:  I started writing a book I was planning to call ‘The eBay Lifestyle’ a few years back…until eBay sent me a cease and desist order.  While I never finished the book, my wife and I continue to live what I now call ‘The Auction Lifestyle’.  In short, all it means is that my wife and I understand the value of things, because we think about where we spend every penny.  When you understand the value of ‘stuff’, you tend to make smart spending decisions. (including NOT spending on many things)

An Example:  The hospital rented us a heavy duty breast pump for a few weeks after my wife’s delivery.  Because we have twins, pumping is a constant in our house.  After things got a touch settled, my wife and I started looking at the costs involved in renting the breast pump.  Over 2 years, the cost was going to be $1500.  Not unreasonable, was my initial reaction.  However, we were able to find the same breast pump used on Craigslist (with a bunch of bottles and nipples to boot!) for $500.  We returned the hospital one and bought the used one on Craigslist.  Better still, after we are done with it, we will likely be able to resell the pump for the same $500 we paid for it.  With just a little bit of effort, we saved close to $1500.

We do that same math with essentially every purchase we make over $100.  By buying quality used items we can often resell, our costs for most hard goods (over time) is very close to $0.  Our entire nursery set, which includes 2 cribs, a changing table, lamp, chair, bouncy seats, etc, which new could have cost us over $3500, we spent $1000 on.  (And we know several families, a couple of whom live mostly paycheck-to-paycheck, who would just put the $3500 on credit cards).  And after we are done with it, we will be able to sell all of it for very close to what we paid.

I know most preppers are pretty good with their money, and are usually frugal.  However, I know one prepper (a great friend, don’t get me wrong) who bought not one, but two new cars in the past 5 years…and who wonders why he never gets their student loan debt paid off.  Luckily, he finally took some good advice and started an online retail business like ours, and is going to be able to dig his family out of debt very quickly.=)

What most of this advice boils down to is:  Be intentional with your money.  If you do that, over time you will be much more prepared to deal with what life throws your way.


03 2014

The Mother of Invention

After you have changed something in your life, whether a longtime habit, an ugly couch or a way of doing things, have you ever said ‘why on earth didn’t I do this sooner?’  When I worked in the corporate world, one of my duties was efficiency studies, where I would examine a process in an effort to find a way to improve it.  Often, I could evaluate an old process and find ways to cut the time necessary to perform it in half, and sometimes even eliminate it or fold it into something personnel were already doing.  I find myself a little red-faced, because while I regularly did that for my former company, it has taken me a long time to do it for my own.  Not only that, when I started prepping for this post (pardon the pun), I noticed that many areas of life, whether business related, personal, or among social groups (including Survival Club, our prep group), could use a good going-over to figure out where the inefficiencies are.

It used to be the most painful part of my job, though one of absolute necessity, was printing labels for our outgoing shipments.  We used Paypal for many of our labels, and the process was downright frustrating.  It would take over two minutes to process each.  Only 8 weeks ago, I spent over 3 hours a day to process labels, reprint labels I did wrong, or print labels for re-shipments.  I never stopped to think, until recently, what a huge burden that was…mainly because all the work was still getting done.  As we looked at moving to our warehouse and possibly hiring a full-time employee, it finally dawned that I needed to fix it.  What flipped the switch for me was the thought of an employee wasting as much time as I was doing essentially nothing (because the label printing process was more waiting for Paypal screens to load than actually doing anything).  After only a few hours of research, I was testing a couple of new pieces of software that would replace our entire label process.  We are using one of those today, and the process that once took hours now takes 20 minutes or less per day.  It does cost $100 per month, but with an estimated 90 hours of time saved, I would only have to be worth $1.10 an hour for us to break even, not even minimum wage, a feat I hope I can manage!  To be honest, most of those 90 hours are being spent with my wife, who had been living with me working 12-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week for the past year or so.  My only regret, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, was not doing it sooner.  I can’t begin to explain what this one change has meant for my family life, my anxiety level, and my enjoyment of the business we have created.

A similar situation arose with our prep group recently.  We have been working (sort of) hard trying to finish up the water project I’ve mentioned a few times on the blog.  Until it is done, every monthly meeting is being spent on completing it.  One of our members pointed out that often, almost every meeting, we didn’t have all the fittings, tools, or parts we needed to do the day’s work, and we would have to send a member to the store.  Meanwhile, the rest of the group would sit around waiting at the bottom of the valley we are working in, often freezing our tails off.  Finally, recognizing this, we decided that the week prior to our meeting, we would have a brief email exchange regarding the goal for the weekend, and one person would be assigned to pick up whatever was needed.  For about 15 minutes of effort emailing, and another hour for someone to go to the store, we saved the entire group 10 man-hours worth of sitting around, for a savings of over 7 hours…not to mention the decreased frustration level.

While my wife and I haven’t decided yet if we’ll change anything, we have decided to expand this theme and examine our food, water, medical and other family preps, and I think for everyone it is a good idea to do the same every so often.  What worked for us 5 years ago when we started prepping might not work today, but we will never know it if we assume all is well and don’t take stock of our situation.  Those who have prepped for a modest period of time (2-4 years) probably have the most to gain from a prep-audit.  The knowledge base one has in that range is likely to have improved enormously with even a decent amount of planning and reading.  One big example for us was finding out my wife was gluten-intolerant…with us having stored 400 pounds of wheat!  Another was determining we didn’t really like the pinto beans we had stored.  For the first problem, we laid in a couple hundred pounds of gluten-free flour (which we use and rotate every 12 months or so), and for the other we switched the types of beans we had stored to ones we enjoyed more.  I’ve heard many people say that if a true long-term emergency did happen, ‘we’ll use it if we have to’.  While true, why set yourself up for a miserable dining experience on top of what would already be a stressful situation?  If we are spending all day clearing brush, pounding fence posts, or chopping wood, the last thing I want is to come in to a meal I won’t enjoy!

So if you find yourself thinking there is something in your life that just doesn’t work well, you’re probably right.  For me, preparedness has always been about making some modest changes to my life to put myself in a position to better handle any challenges that come my way, whether they are personal, business-related, financial or social.





04 2012

7 Ways to Simplify Your Life

Have you ever looked around your house or apartment and wondered, ‘How in the heck did I get so much stuff?’  Books, DVD’s, random piles of computer gadgetry, plastic and metal organizers that seem like THEY need organizing?  Kitchen appliances you haven’t used it years, fitness equipment you keep promising to use, 30 years of National Geographic?

One of the touchstones of preparedness and self-sufficiency is getting back to the simple things in life.  I look around my house and my life and while I am blessed with many good things, sometimes the blessings of material things weigh heavy on my spirit.  We held our annual yard sale this past weekend, and I was ecstatic to watch 500 pounds of stuff leave my life.  We didn’t care how much it sold for, we just wanted it gone.  We sold two heavy, old pieces of furniture for a third of what it was worth, just to get rid of it.  After several years, I finally acknowledged I won’t be getting back into my size 36 pants anytime soon, and they all went.  Video games that I haven’t played in 5 years.  And on and on.  And everything that didn’t sell was put into the van and brought to Goodwill.  If we are willing to sell something at a yard sale, why should I ever bring it back into my house?

I’ve read a lot of articles on simplifying, and most of the ideas are common sense.  Still, it is hard to let go of some things, either because we spent money on it, it is sentimental, or because we fear that once we get rid of it, we might suddenly need it.  What do you mean I don’t need that waffle maker?  I made waffles 4 years ago, and I might do it again soon!

My wife and I have a goal.  The next time we buy a house, we aren’t going to move any of our stuff into it.  We will buy (as frugally as possible) only items we must have to live there in reasonable comfort, and nothing more.  If the house has lots of closets in the bedrooms, we won’t buy dressers.  If a space on the walls seems empty, we may put up a piece of art, but not a rack full of knick-knacks.  If we want music, we’ll install a permanent speaker system inside the walls or ceiling and run it from our laptops, and not a giant stereo system.

Maybe you like your stuff, and that’s cool, I used to have a great love affair with all of ours!  But if you feel your stuff draining your spirit and attention, here are 7 tips to help you take back your space and simplify your life.

1.  Identify what is important to you, and eliminate everything else.  Yes, much easier said than done.  We’re not even close to doing this yet, but it is our goal.

2.  Mediate your Media.  If you haven’t watched it, listened to it, or read it in the past year, sell it.  I know people with 1000’s of DVD’s, games and movies.  Most of them are as busy or more busy than I am, so I know they can’t possibly watch 1000 DVD’s, especially if they have seen the movies before.  Pick 10…heck, pick your 25 favorite movies, and sell the rest.  If you really feel like watching something, it is likely available online from Netflix, Hulu or other digital service.

3.  When you reclaim space, give it a purpose.  The two pieces of furniture we sold took up a lot of space in our work area.  Instead of refilling the space with clutter, my wife built shelving into the wall, which now holds business supplies that sat on a table or in totes on the floor previously.  We have gained at least 75square feet of floor we didn’t have before.

4.  If you don’t wear it, donate it.  Those parachute pants are never coming back into fashion.  And sitting on the couch will never make you a size 2 again like you were in high school.  If you haven’t worn it in a year, you are not going to wear it again.  Bring it to Goodwill and it will find a a good home.  Prior to this yard sale, our clothes closets were bursting at the seams.  Now, we have spare hangers for the first time in years.

5.  What do you really enjoy doing?  Pick your 3-4 favorite hobbies, and sell any hobby-related items not related to those.  For me, that means preparedness, hiking, reading, and board games.  Sorry Roller-blades, you were fun but I don’t use you anymore.  The X-Men, Thor, and 5000 other comics I have?  Sell in bulk to a shop, or donate to a children’s home.  Collectible cards?  I sold them last year for over $500 and put the money into a savings account.

6.  Use what you have.  If you have something serviceable, don’t buy something new just because you want to.  I have an excellent Mountainsmith backpack, and it is still in excellent condition after 5 years of use.  When I started thinking about my Appalachian Trail section hike, I asked my friend Bill from BuyItRight about what I should get for a new, larger backpack.  He told me not to get anything at all.  He said ‘if you have a larger backpack, all you’ll do is carry more stuff.’  The same goes for my sleeping bag.  Instead of buying a new -30 bag, I should probably schedule my hike to where my excellent 32-degree bag works just fine.

7.  Use Technology.  It sounds funny even saying it because most of us have computers, cell phones, and GPS devices.  But do we use it all to the fullest?  All of my banking is done online, including auto-bill pay, direct deposit when I had a regular job, and even my check-writing is done online.  No more stamps, a permanent record of when I paid or got paid, and about 1/3 the time I used to spend on that sort of thing.  Some folks are still a little wary about doing things online, but almost all banks protect you from fraudulent charges.  I’ve been doing it for over 5 years, and I check my credit report for free regularly to ensure nothing has gone wrong.  To be honest, I need a better system to organize all that data, but it’s better than the filing cabinets filled with paperwork my father has.

Simplicity creates a sense of peace, serenity and control over our surroundings.  As the timeless Henry David Thoreau said ‘Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplify, simplify.’


07 2011

Travelling Prepared

Since the business has become our full-time gig, I had assumed we would be home-bound for years, or at least until we had an employee we could trust with the keys. In other words, years. However, several months ago my wife suggested we get a trailer, load it up with inventory, and go wherever. We mulled it over for a while, and finally for Memorial Day we went on the first Advice and Beans Road Trip. We didn’t buy a trailer for this adventure, but we did take the SurvivalVan, my wife’s Quest, which held enough inventory for a week and food and water for longer than that.

This time we didn’t go very far, to a lake house that a friend of ours owns about 3 hours away. (Well, we never saw the lake, so we could call it ‘the woods house’). We went over Memorial Day weekend and had a great time.

What I found is that my entire thought process around travel has changed. It used to be in my twenties and thirties I would throw a gym bag in the back of the car with a couple changes of clothes, a toothbrush and some Rush CD’s and I was off to wherever. While I don’t really stress about it today, I do put a lot more thought into traveling than I used to.

I am sure these concepts won’t be new to many people, but I prep for travel just like I prep at home. Even before considering what to take with us in order to conduct business on the road, I made sure to check off the 5 basics on the list:

1- Water
2- Food
3- Shelter
4- Fire
5- Light

While the 72-hour kits that we keep in our cars have all of those, when traveling out of our regular sphere of influence I feel the need to be a little extra prepared.

We actually overstocked our food; we had enough to feed 6 people and the 2 dogs for a week. We only brought about half that, but picked up a bunch more at the local Wal-mart and took a great deal home with us. For water, we brought a case of bottled water as well as our Nalgene’s.  For shelter, we had our REI Quarterdome Tent and several blankets and sleeping bags.  Plus, in a pinch the van is plenty good shelter.  In TN during late May, its likely we wouldn’t need anything but a pair of shorts, so that was likely overkill. I always carry a lighter and a fire-steel with me, but I added a couple more Bic’s just in case.   For light we brought our big Maglite and my wife’s headlamp, but I am mad at myself that I forgot our propane lantern, which would have been great on the porch.  It also goes to show that what you forget is what you’ll need:  the lights from the driveway to the house were all burnt out, so having the lantern would have been perfect.  I didn’t realize but dogs don’t like peeing when they can’t see, so I had to wander around in the dark with our 3-lb and 8-lb girly-dogs.

For extras, we had jumper cables, jack and spare, and a small medical kit, as well as a month’s worth of any medications we regularly take. I sometimes hesitate to mention this, but I think its important: we also carried a pretty good amount of cash. We use our debit card and online payments for pretty much everything nowadays, but in the past I’ve been in some situations where it was the only way to pay for something, such as during a power outage or if the businesses phone lines were down.  I think everyone should always have a couple hundred dollars hidden on when they are traveling, and even when they are not.  We regularly buy items off of Craigslist or at yard sales at big discounts, but 99.9% of the time you must have cash.

So overall the trip was pretty minor as these things go, but it felt good knowing that if we got lost, broke down, or something happened while we were actually there, we had enough to survive a week pretty easily, and more if we rationed.

Prior to leaving, I also checked that we had our licenses, insurance cards (both car and health), and let our family know where we were going and when we were due back.

I think we’ve decided that we will get a pull-behind trailer for the business inventory, so if anyone has any recommendations please let me know. It’s nice to think that we’ll get to leave the house before the next Winter Olympics rolls around.  Our next adventure will be a full-blown road trip to New England to see our families. Probably 10 days gone; I haven’t done the math on how many cubic feet of stuff we’d need to take, but its significant.

I still think there are probably a lot of things I missed, as I tend to be a homebody; drop me an email at admin@adviceandbeans.com with any tips you have for when you travel, or anything that I forgot.

Preparing Through Things You Should Be Doing Anyway

Glenn Reynolds linked this post about whether or not the government will eventually tax Roth IRA’s, even though they were set up to be tax-emempt.   McArdle’s conclusion might be par for the course for many preppers, but it might be helpful for others:

So I don’t advise not saving.  But I’ve started thinking about saving in ways that Uncle Sam won’t be tempted to touch–like paying off your house early, maybe buying a vacation home (for cash) if you know where you’re likely to want to spend a lot of time, and doing the kind of renovations that save you money in the long run–better insulation, higher-end energy-efficient appliances, etc.  Paying now to lower your monthly costs later may have a better after-tax return than that “tax free” account.

My wife and I have been debt-free for some time now, except for our mortgage.  One of our goals is to pay that off in the next 5-7 years.   Having a decent lifestyle that can be supported by working at the local fast-food restaurant must bring financial peace of mind, and it is one we hope to achieve.

Being prepared goes hand in hand with having our finances under control, and not having them control us.  We do have a Roth and a 401(k), but I have about as much faith in them performing well enough to let us retire comfortably as I do in Social Security being available when I am 65.  While I do believe in investing for retirement once you have the other financial aspects of your life under control, bringing our monthly costs down to almost nothing will be a better and more immediate investment that will allow more options in our lives.

As I also believe inflation will take a good portion of our earnings in the next several years, I am purchasing more (useful) goods that will retain value or hopefully not lose much.  My food storage from 2007 is a huge boon, as to purchase the same items today would cost 30% more, and will likely be pushing 40% by year’s end.  That’s a whole lot better than my 401(k) performed since 2007.

I also assume prices aren’t going down anytime soon, so we are also purchasing some things our house needs and that don’t depreciate rapidly, such as a new refrigerator, washer and dryer, some tools, and maybe a firearm or 3.  We’ll still get a deal where we can, such as at the local scratch and dent store, but I’d much rather have at least some of our cash in hard goods than in my savings account earning -8%.

One of our preparedness group members also completed a huge project along this line.  His electric bill has been outrageous since he bought his home several years ago (over $350/month), so he completely replaced every component of his heating system.  He took out the heat pump, installed a propane system with a tankless water heater, and added some insulation as well as some monitoring thermostats.  I expect he’ll cut his electric bill in half and the savings will pay for his investment within a year or two.

It’s definitely a more interesting mix of saving and spending than I’ve advocated in the past, or that might be acceptable to Dave Ramsey, but one that makes sense for my family.


04 2011